*Reprinted from C. Wright Mills, “Situated Actions and Vocabularies of Motive,” in American Sociological Review, V (December):904-9 13, 1940, with permission of the author and the American Sociological Review.

The major reorientation of recent theory and observation in sociology of language emerged with the overthrow of the Wundtian notion that language has as its function the “expression” of prior elements within the individual. The postulate underlying modem study of language is the simple one that we must approach linguistic behavior, not by referring it to private states in individuals, but by observing its social function of coordinating diverse action. Rather than expressing something which is prior and in the person, language is taken by other persons as an indicator of future actions.


Within this perspective there are suggestions concerning problems of motivation. It is the purpose of this chapter to outline an analytic model for the explanation of motives which is based on a sociological theory of language and a sociological psychology.


As over against the inferential conception of motives as subjective “springs” of action, motives may be considered as typical vocabularies having ascertainable functions in delimited societal situations. Human actors do vocalize and impute motives to themselves and to others. To explain behavior by referring it to an inferred and abstract “motive” is one thing. To analyze the observable lingual mechanisms of motive imputation and avowal as they function in conduct is quite another. Rather than fixed elements “in” an individual, motives are the terms with which interpretation of conduct by social actors proceeds. This imputation and avowal of motives by actors are social phenomena to be explained. The differing reasons men give for their actions are not themselves without reasons.


First, we must demarcate the general conditions under which such motive imputation and avowal seem to occur. Next, we must give a characteriza[end p.904]tion of motive in denotable terms and an explanatory paradigm of why certain motives are verbalized rather than others. Then, we must indicate mechanisms of the linkage of vocabularies of motive to systems of action. What we want is an analysis of the integrating, controlling, and specifying function a certain type of speech fulfils in socially situated actions.


The generic situation in which imputation and avowal of motives arise involves, first, the social conduct or the (stated) programs of languaged creatures, i.e., programs and actions oriented with reference to the actions and talk of others; second, the avowal and imputation of motives is concomitant with the speech form known as the “question.” Situations back of questions typically involve alternative or unexpected programs or actions which phases analytically denote “crises.” The question is distinguished in that it usually elicits another verbal action, not a motor response. The question is an element in conversation. Conversation may be concerned with the factual features of a situation as they are seen or believed to be or it may seek to integrate and promote a set of diverse social actions with reference to the situation and its normative pattern of expectations. It is in this latter assent and dissent phase of conversation that persuasive and dissuasive speech and vocabulary arise. For men live in immediate acts of experience and their attentions are directed outside themselves until acts are in some way frustrated. It is then that awareness of self and of motive occur. The “question” is a lingual index of such conditions. The avowal and imputation of motives are features of such conversations as arise in “question” situations.


Motives are imputed or avowed as answers to questions interrupting acts or programs. Motives are words. Generically, to what do they refer? They do not denote any elements “in” individuals. They stand for anticipated situational consequences of questioned conduct. Intention or purpose (stated as a “program”) is awareness of anticipated consequence; motives are names for consequential situations, and surrogates for actions leading to them. Behind questions are possible alternative actions with their terminal consequences. “Our introspective words for motives are rough, short-hand descriptions for certain typical patterns of discrepant and conflicting stimuli.”5


The model of purposive conduct associated with Dewey’s name may briefly be stated. Individuals confronted with “alternative acts” perform one or the other of them on the basis of the differential consequences which they anticipate. This nakedly utilitarian schema is inadequate because: (a) the “alternative acts” of social conduct “appear” most often in lingual form, [end p.905] as a question, stated by one’s self or by another; (b) it is more adequate to say that individuals act in terms of anticipation of named consequences.


Among such names and in some technologically oriented lines of action there may appear such terms as “useful,” “practical,” “serviceable,” etc., terms so “ultimate” to the pragmatists, and also to certain sectors of the American population in these delimited situations. However, there are other areas of population with different vocabularies of motives. The choice of lines of action is accompanied by representations, and selection among them, of their situational termini. Men discern situations with particular vocabularies, and it is in terms of some delimited vocabulary that they anticipate consequences ofconduct. Stable vocabularies of motives link anticipated consequences and specific actions. There is no need to invoke “psychological” terms like “desire” or “wish” as explanatory, since they themselves must be explained socially. Anticipation is a subvocal or overt naming of terminal phases and/or social consequences of conduct. When an individual names consequences, he elicits the behaviors for which the name is a redintegrative cue. In a societal situation, implicit in the names of consequences is the social dimension of motives. Through such vocabularies, types of societal controls operate. Also, the terms in which the question is asked often wilicontain both alternatives: “Love or Duty?”, “Business or Pleasure?” Institutionally different situations have different vocabularies of motive appropriate to their respective behaviors.


This sociological conception of motives as relatively stable lingual phases of delimited situations is quite consistent with Mead’s program to approach conduct socially and from the outside. It keeps clearly in mind that “both motives and actions very often originate not from within but from the situation in which individuals find themselves. It translates the question of “why”into a “how” that is answerable in terms of a situation and its typical vocabulary of motives, i.e., those which conventionally accompany that type situation and function as cues and justifications for normative actions in it.


It has been indicated that the question is usually an index to the avowal and imputation of motives. Max Weber defines motive as a complex of meaning, which appears to the actor himself or to the observer to be an adequate ground for his conduct.’̊ The aspect of motive which this concep[end p.906]tion grasps is its intrinsically social character. A satisfactory or adequate motive is one that satisfies the questioners of an act or program whether it be the other’s or the actor’s. As a word, a motive tends to be one which is to the actor and to the other members of a situation an unquestioned answer to questions concerning social and lingual conduct. A stable motive is an ultimate in justificatory conversation. The words which in a type situation will fulfil this function are circumscribed by the vocabulary of motives acceptable for such situations. Motives are accepted justifications for present, future, or past programs or acts.


To term them justification is not to deny their efficacy. Often anticipations of acceptable justifications will control conduct. (“If I did this, what could I say? What would they say?”) Decisions may be, wholly or in part, delimited by answers to such queries.


A man may begin an act for one motive. In the course of it, he may adopt an ancillary motive. This does not mean that the second apologetic motive is inefficacious. The vocalized expectation of an act, its “reason,” is not only a mediating condition of the act but it is a proximate and controlling condition for which the term “cause” is not appropriate. It may strengthen the act of the actor. It may win new allies for his act.


When they appeal to others involved in one’s act, motives are strategies of action. In many social actions, others must agree, tacitly or explicitly. Thus, acts often will be abandoned if no reason can be found that others will accept. Diplomacy in choice of motive often controls the diplomat. Diplomatic choice of motive is part of the attempt to motivate acts for other members ma situation. Such pronounced motives undo snarls and integrate social actions. Such diplomacy does not necessarily imply intentional lies. It riierely indicates that an appropriate vocabulary of motives will be utilized—that they are conditions for certain lines of conduct.


When an agent vocalizes or imputes motives, he is not trying to describe his experienced social action. He is not merely stating “reasons.” He is influencing others—and himself. Often he is finding new “reasons” which will mediate action. Thus, we need not treat an action as discrepant from “its” verbalization, for in many cases, the verbalization is a new act. In such cases, there is not a discrepancy between an act and “its” verbalization, but a difference between two disparate actions, motor-social and verbal. This additional (or “ex post facto”) lingualization may involve appeal to a vocabulary of motives associated with a norm with which both members of the situation are in agreement. As such, it is an integrative factor in future phases of the original social action or in other acts. By resolving conflicts, motives are efficacious. Often, if “reasons” were not given, an act would not occur, nor would diverse actions be integrated. Motives are common grounds for mediated behaviors.


Perry summarily states the Freudian view of motives “as the view that the real motives of conduct are those which we are ashamed to admit either to ourselves or to others.” One can cover the facts by merely saying that scruples (i.e., moral vocabularies of motive) are often efficacious and that men will alter and deter their acts in terms of such motives. One of the components of a “generalized other,” as a mechanism of societal control, is vocabularies of acceptable motives. For example, a businessman joins the Rotary Club and proclaims its public-spirited vocabulary. If this man cannot act out business conduct without so doing, it follows that this vocabulary of motives is an important factor in his behavior.’ The long acting out of a role, with its appropriate motives, will often induce a man to become what at first he merely sought to appear. Shifts in the vocabularies of motive that are utilized later by an individual disclose an important aspect of various integrations of his actions with concomitantly various groups.


The motives actually used in justifying or criticizing an act definitely link it to situations, integrate one man’s action with another’s, and line up conduct with norms. The societally sustained motive-surrogates of situations are both constraints and inducements. It is a hypothesis worthy and capable of test that typal vocabularies of motives for different situations are significant determinants of conduct. As lingual segments of social action, motives orient actions by enabling discrimination between their objects. Adjectives such as “good,” “pleasant,” and “bad” promote action or deter it. When they constitute components of a vocabulary of motives, i.e., are typical and relatively unquestioned accompaniments of typal situations, such words often function as directives and incentives by virtue of their being the judgments of others as anticipated by the actor. In this sense motives are “social instruments, i.e., data by modifying which the agent will be able to influence [himself or others].” The “control” of others is not usually direct but rather through manipulation of a field of objects. We influence a man by naming his acts or imputing motives to them—or to “him.” The motives accompanying institutions of war, e.g., are not “the causes” of war, but they do promote continued integrated participation, and they vary from one war to the next. Working vocabularies of motive have careers that are woven through changing institutional fabrics.


Genetically, motives are imputed by others before they are avowed by self. The mother controls the child: “Do not do that, it is greedy.” Not only does the child learn what to do, what not to do, but he is given standardized motives which promote prescribed actions and dissuade those proscribed. Along with rules and norms of action for various situations, we learn vocabularies of motives appropriate to them. These are the motives we shall use, since they are a part of our language and components of our behavior.


The quest for “real motives” supposititiously set over against “mere rationalization” is often informed by a metaphysical view that the “real” motives are in some way biological. Accompanying such quests for something more real and back of rationalization is the view held by many sociologists that language is an external manifestation or concomitant of something prior, more genuine, and “deep” in the individual. “Real attitudes” versus “mere verbalization” or “opinion” implies that at best we only infer from his language what “really” is the individual’s attitude or motive.


Now what could we possibly so infer? Of precisely what is verbalization symptomatic? We cannot infer physiological processes from lingual phenomena. All we can infer and empirically check is another verbalization of the agent’s which we believe was orienting and controlling behavior at the time the act was performed. The only social items that can “lie deeper” are other lingual forms. The “Real Attitude or Motive” is not something different in kind from the verbalization or the “opinion.” They turn out to be only relatively and temporally different.


The phrase “unconscious motive” is also unfortunate. All it can mean is that a motive is not explicitly vocalized, but there is no need to infer unconscious motives from such situations and then posit them in individuals as elements. The phrase is informed by persistence of the unnecessary and unsubstantiated notion that “all action has a motive,” and it is promoted by the observation of gaps in the relatively frequent verbalization in everyday situations. The facts to which this phrase is supposedly addressed are covered by the statements that men do not always explicitly articulate motives, and that all actions do not pivot around language. I have already indicated the conditions under which motives are typically avowed and imputed.


Within the perspective under consideration, the verbalized motive is not used as an index of something in the individual but as a basis of inferencefor a typical vocabulary of motives of a situated action. When we ask for the [end p.909] “real attitude” rather than the “opinion,” for the “real motive” rather than the “rationalization,” all we can meaningfully be asking for is the controlling speech form which was incipiently or overtly presented in the performed act or series of acts. There is no way to plumb behind verbalization into an individual and directly check our motive-mongering, but there is an empirical way in which we can guide and limit, in given historical situations, investigations of motives. That is, by the construction of typal vocabularies of motives that are extant in types of situations and actions. Imputation of motives may be controlled by reference to the typical constellation of motives which are observed to be societally linked with classes of situated actions. Some of the “real” motives that have been imputed to actors were not even known to them. As I see it, motives are circumscribed by the vocabulary of the actor. The only source for a terminology of motives is the vocabularies of motives actually and usually verbalized by actors in specific situations.


Individualistic, sexual, hedonistic, and pecuniary vocabularies of motives are apparently now dominant in many sectors of twentieth-century urban America. Under such an ethos, verbalization of alternative conduct in these terms is least likely to be challenged among dominant groups. In this milieu, individuals are skeptical of Rockefeller’s avowed religious motives for his business conduct because such motives are not now terms of the vocabulary conventionally and prominently accompanying situations of business enterprise. A medieval monk writes that he gave food to a poor but pretty woman because it was “for the glory of God and the eternal salvation of his soul.” Why do we tend to question him and impute sexual motives? Because sex is an influential and widespread motive in our society and time. Religious vocabularies of explanation and of motives are now on the wane. In a society in which religious motives have been debunked on a rather wide scale, certain thinkers are skeptical of those who ubiquitously proclaim them. Religious motives have lapsed from selected portions of modern populations and other motives have become “ultimate” and operative. But from the monasteries of medieval Europe we have no evidence that religious vocabularies were not operative in many situations.


A labor leader says he performs a certain act because he wants to get higher standards of living for the workers. A businessman says that this is rationalization, or a lie; that it is really because he wants more money for himself from the workers. A radical says a college professor will not engage in radical movements because he is afraid for his job, and besides, is a “reactionary.” The college professor says it is because he just likes to find out how things work. What is reason for one man is rationalization for another. The variable is the accepted vocabulary of motives, the ultimate of discourse, of each man’s dominant group about whose opinion he cares. Determination of such groups, their location and character, would enable delimitation and methodological control of assignment of motives for speqfic acts.


Stress on this idea will lead us to investigations of the compartmentaliza[end p.910]tion of operative motives in personalities according to situation and the general types and conditions of vocabularies of motives in various types of societies. The motivational structures of individuals and the patterns of their purposes are relative to societal frames. We might, e.g., study motives along stratified or occupational lines. Max Weber has observed:


“... that in a free society the motives which induce people to work vary with . . . different social classes. . . . There is normally a graduated scale of motives by which men from different social classes are driven to work. When a man changes ranks, he switches from one set of motives to another.”


The lingual ties which hold them together react on persons to constitute frameworks of disposition and motive. Recently, Talcott Parsons has indicated, by reference to differences in actions in the professions and in business, that one cannot leap from “economic analysis to ultimate motivations; the institutional patterns always constitute one crucial element of the problem.”It is my suggestion that we may analyze, index, and gauge this element by focusing upon those specific verbal appendages of variant institutionalized actions which have been referred to as vocabularies of motive.


In folk societies, the constellations of motives connected with various sectors of behavior would tend to be typically stable and remain associated only with their sector. In typically primary, sacred, and rural societies, the motives of persons would be regularly compartmentalized. Vocabularies of motives ordered to different situations stabilize and guide behavior and expectation of the reactions of others. In their appropriate situations, verbalized motives are not typically questioned. In secondary, secular, and urban structures, varying and competing vocabularies of motives operate coterminously and the situations to which they are appropriate are not clearly demarcated. Motives once unquestioned for defined situations are now questioned. Various motives can release similar acts in a given situation. Hence, variously situated persons are confused and guess which motive “activated” the person. Such questioning has resulted intellectually in such movements as psychoanalysis with its dogma of rationalization and its systematic motive-mongering. Such intellectual phenomena are underlaid [end p.911] by split and conflicting sections of an individuated society which is characterized by the existence of competing vocabularies of motive. Intricate constellations of motives, for example, are components of business enterprise in America. Such patterns have encroached on the old style vocabulary of the virtuous relation of men and women: duty, love, kindness. Among certain classes, the romantic, virtuous, and pecuniary motives are confused. The asking of the question: “Marriage for love or money?” is significant, for the pecuniary is now a constant and almost ubiquitous motive, a common denominator of many others.


Back of “mixed motives” and “motivational conflicts” are competing or discrepant situational patterns and their respective vocabularies of motive. With shifting and interstitial situations, each of several alternatives may belong to disparate systems of action which have differing vocabularies of motives appropriate to them. Such conflicts manifest vocabulary patterns that have overlapped in a marginal individual and are not easily compartmentalized in clear-cut situations.


Besides giving promise of explaining an area of lingual and societal fact, a further advantage of this view of motives is that with it we should be able to give sociological accounts of other theories (terminologies) of motivation. This is a task for sociology of knowledge. Here I can refer only to a few theories. I have already referred to the Freudian terminology of motives, it is apparent that these motives are those of an upper bourgeois patriarchal group with strong sexual and individualistic orientation. When introspecting on the couches of Freud, patients used the only vocabulary of motives they knew; Freud got his hunch and guided further talk. Mittenzwey has dealt with similar points at length. Widely diffused in a postwar epoch, psychoanalysis was never popular in France where control of sexual behavior is not puritanical. To converted individuals who have become accustomed to the psychoanalytic terminology of motives, all others seem self-deceptive.


In like manner, to many believers in Marxism’s terminology of power, struggle, and economic motives, all others, including Freud’s, are due to hypocrisy or ignorance. An individual who has assimilated thoroughly only business congeries of motives will attempt to apply these motives to all situations, home and wife included, it should be noted that the business terminology of motives has its intellectual articulation, even as psychoanalysis and Marxism have.


It is significant that since the Socratic period many “theories of motiva[end p.912]tion” have been linked with ethical and religious terminologies. Motive is that in man which leads him to do good or evil. Under the aegis of religious institutions, men use vocabularies of moral motives: they call acts and programs “good” and “bad,” and impute these 4ualities to the soul. Such lingual behavior is part of the process of social control. Institutional practices and their vocabularies of motive exercise control over delimited ranges of possible situations. One could make a typal catalog of religious motives from widely read religious texts, and test its explanatory power in various denominations and sects.


In many situations of contemporary America, conduct is controlled and integrated by hedonistic language. For large population sectors in certain situations, pleasure and pain are now unquestioned motives. For given periods and societies, these situations should be empirically determined. Pleasure and pain should not be reified and imputed to human nature as underlying principles of all action. Note that hedonism as a psychological and an ethical doctrine gained impetus in the modern world at about the time when older moral-religious motives were being debunked and simply discarded by “middle class” thinkers. Back of the hedonistic terminology lay an emergent social pattern and a new vocabulary of motives. The shift of unchallenged motives which gripped the communities of Europe was climaxed when, in reconciliation, the older religious and the hedonistic terminologies were identified: the “good” is the “pleasant.” The conditioning situation was similar in the Hellenistic world with the hedonism of the Cyrenaics and Epicureans.


What is needed is to take all these terminologies of motive and locate them as vocabularies of motive in historic epochs and specified situations. Motives are of no value apart from the delimited societal situations for which they are the appropriate vocabularies. They must be situated. At best, socially unlocated terminologies of motives represent unfinished attempts to block out social areas of motive imputation and avowal. Motives vary in content and character with historical epochs and societal structures.


Rather than interpreting actions and language as external manifestations of subjective and deeper lying elements in individuals, the research task is the locating of particular types of action within typal frames of normative actions and socially situated clusters of motive. There is no explanatory value in subsuming various vocabularies of motives under some terminology or list. Such procedure merely confuses the task of explaining specific cases. The languages of situations as given must be considered a valuable portion of the data to be interpreted and related to their conditions. To simplify these vocabularies of motive into a socially abstracted terminology is to destroy the legitimate use of motive in the explanation of social actions. [end p.913]